Portland As Mass Transit Mecca: A Failure To Launch

Oregon’s largest city, Portland, has long been a model of transit planning and alternate forms of transportation. Ever since the days of Neil Goldschmidt, regional leaders have adapted the planning model to attempt to force commuters from cars to such mass transit options as bus, light rail and street car (paradoxically not considered the same thing). Congressman Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) has famously championed MORE congestion as a way to force people out of their cars. Despite this high powered attempt to paint Portland as a mecca for extremists hoping to end individual reliance on cars, the results show little actual positive effect.

In 2010, Portland hosted “Rail-Volution”, a day of seminars, demonstrations and celebrations of the light rail transformation of the city:

When they weren’t riding demo trips on the light rail, they attended seminars with names like “Bikeways and Green Streets,” “High-Speed-Rail and Development Paradigm Shifts,” and “Sustainable Communities for the New Economy.” Portland’s mayor presided over one of the seminars, and Earl Blumenauer, the left-wing congressman who represents Portland’s east side, was a featured speaker. The event, one local wag noted, had the air of a religious revival.

However, the resultant reliance on federal funding for mass transit and a lack of investment in freeway expansion has led to several negative results, including far greater commute times and a reduction in funding for other forms of transit – bus lines have been cannibalized by light rail. And the flow of new studies continues unabated showing that this reliance on mass transit has almost no effect on commuters.

One such article was published just this week by Wendell Cox, author of War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life. On the blog New Geography, he writes,

Since 1980, before the first rail line was opened, transit’s share of work trip travel in the metropolitan area has declined by one-quarter, from 8.4 percent to 6.3 percent. Overall, the share of travel by car remains about the same as before the first light rail line opened [in 1986].

Transit access to destinations outside downtown Portland remains scant. Despite the huge expenditures on transit, only 8 percent of the jobs in the metropolitan area can be reached by the average employee in 45 minutes, despite the fact that nearly 85 percent of workers are within walking distance of the transit stops or stations.

According to the latest American Community Survey data, the average work trip by people driving alone in Portland is 23.6 minutes, while the average transit commute trip is 43.8 minutes.

Further, Portland transit users could face draconian service reductions. Tri-Met, which operates light rail and most Oregon services, has warned that it may be required eventually to cut 70 percent of its service. This results from the failure to control labor costs, particularly pension costs, which is detailed in an Oregonian article.

As a resident of a suburb of Portland, I can personally attest to the uselessness of light rail. I live within a 4 block walk of one MAX stop, and used to work in a building right at another stop. Yet I was unable to commute via mass transit, because I had children to take to school, various other stops to make along the way, and a need to get to meetings outside my work hours that required me to have my own personal vehicle. What light rail proponents fail to consider is what we like to call “real life”, where errands are run and groceries are bought and kids are brought to soccer practice and violin lessons. The stats bear this out.

It’s a wonder that planners even still consider these to be viable options.